"The Pleasure Principal"
Melody Maker, Sep'96
THE PLEASURE PRINCIPAL
“We’re the Boyzone of indie rock,” states Stefan Oldsal, Placebo’s nine-foot-high Swedish bassist. He’s examining the polaroids of today’s photo-shoot particularly taken by the one where he and drummer Robert Schultzberg look on doe-eyed as singer, Brian Molko, a slight, black-haired Marilyn/Courtney hybrid, bound round the waist and wrists with a length of rope. Oh, every inch the teen idols. But Stefan’s joking of course. Placebo are a serious band. They’d never ever align themselves with such banal, fifth generation nonsense and lowest common denominator product.
I men, indie rock, they’re not having that. As Brian later spits, “We’re hyper self-critical and have a very low boredom threshold. It seems the possibilities are endless. We don’t just want to be a guitar band. Fuck that. Fuck it.”
COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT…
In a decent world, it wouldn’t be necessary to explain why Placebo are the most exciting and potentially most important new band to leap above the parapet this year. You’d just listen to the record, see them live, laugh with hysterical relief and then instantly demand that every billboard in Piccadilly Circus be given over to their cause. But they seem to have come from nowhere.
In fact they’ve come from nowhere via Luxembourg and Deptford, which isn’t really that much of a detour when you think about it. According to Brian, the band’s formation was the result of coincidences Paul Auster would find contrived. Back in Luxembourg, he and Stefan were at the American School together - or rather, un-together.
“We hung out in different crowds,” the singer says. “I hung out in the loser group, he was a jock. Imagine a slightly more realistic ‘Breakfast club’ attitude. You didn’t mix.”
Moving to London to study drama at Goldsmiths when he was 17, Brian only met Stefan again two years ago in a bizarre Finnish friend/early morning art exhibition/South Kensington tube incident. Even the fact they met at 9:30am - a time Brian is never awake - leads the singer to believe it was destiny.
A four-track, lo-fi project called Ashtray heart followed, but when they decided they didn’t just want to be “two guys playing with toy instruments” they called in Robert, a friend of Stefan’s who COINCIDENTALLY happened to be studying music in London, too. And the next thing you know (bypassing the bidding war, the independently released singles, feeling “young and virginal” in the industry “shark-pool”)…
Their debut eponymous album, produced by Tortoise’s Brad Wood, was released this June. A super mixture of laser-guided punk, glam swagger and free-falling experimentation, it fulfils the criteria of great music by being suggestive of other lives, other possibilities yet is also gloriously suggestible. There’s a depth and disturbance which lets there songs be taken anywhere, meaning and sound shifting like shot silk. This is just for now - the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.
Talking of which….
“You were the one who wrote that I should be called velvet.”
We’re sitting cross-legged on the roof of Pat Pope’s south London photo studio. Robert and Stefan dislike interviews, and so stay inside and read the papers. Out here, surrounded by an impressive city skyline, wasps attack as the last of the sun floods down. And, well, this next bit is essential, I’m afraid. I just can’t pretend it’s John Power or Mr Ocean Colour Scene sitting lumpenly opposite me.
Believe me, I tried. Tiny with Louise Brooks bob, Brian’s wearing a furry black coat, shimmery pink lipstick and silver-glitter nail polish. Behind huge sunglasses, his eyes are heavily shadowed with grey. He looks like he’s just stepped out of a Pierre-et-Gilles photo fantasia, heart-breakingly beautiful, with the kind of charisma usually half-glimpsed behind tinted limousine windows. OK, I might be susceptible, not coming from the pace where beautiful and charismatic pop stars roam free - but then neither do the hoards of “TOTP” kids who are soon going to be pinning their daydreams to him and the band.
Velvet? Aaaaaaargh, yes. I did write that maybe fate could have named you better.
“I asked my friend Bill if Brian was a nerd’s name in England. He didn’t want to tell me, but I’ve gathered it is. People started sating ‘My dad’s called Brian.’ And unfortunate choice on the part of my parents.”
It does depend on the Brian, I suppose…
“Well, yeah, Brian Jones… Who else?”
Er, Brian Blessed? Brian the snail from “The Magic Roundabout”?
“What’s he like?”
Cheery, chirpy. Bt of a lad.
He looks askance over the top of those film-star sunglasses, pink lipstick shimmering in the sun.
“Oh yeah - that’s me in a nutshell.”
So yes, it kind of goes without saying that Placebo aren’t Yob Rock. Nor, despite Brian being a loss to the cause, are they Romo, and as you’d expect from a Swedo-Lux concern, they can’t be held in the village greens of Britpop. The spectre of American alternative looms quite large - Sonic Youth, Pixies, Rodan, even Smashing Pumpkins (only with triple the intelligence and none of the bombast, stars and not dollar signs in their eyes).
But Placebo do no fit. An art rock band doused in pop, a thoroughbred Trojan horse, everything you could want form a band - only backwards.
What does fit Placebo’s splendid isolation is the fact that their new single is called “Teenage Angst”, a dreamy rush of existential doubt that manages to grasp all the pitilessness, defiance and vulnerability of those hormone-crazed days without sloshing about in self-pity. The title even seems mocking…
“Me and my friends always used to talk about Billy Pumpkin being a little too full of angst onstage,” Brian smiles. “Maybe in that way it’s self-deprecating, but the subject matter’s genuine. Its about the intense emotions you feel as a teenager the way you have a tendency to close yourself a bit, create your own little world. You’re an adult trapped in a kid’s body - you want to break out but everyone still treats you as a kid.”
DO you feel you’ve grown up yet?
“I’m 23 but sometimes when the apathy kicks in, I feel 100 years old. Sometimes I get the idea I’ve been here before - a Parisienne whore or something, I don’t know, things don’t surprise me as much as I imagined they would. Maybe I’m just a fast learner.
As for his own angst-ridden teen days, Brian declines to comment - he’s on the record as saying his childhood was unhappy, it’s been getting back to his parents - but when I ask when he’s like people to listen to the album he replies :
“Some form of kidnapping. Kidnapping as many figures of authority as you can - your priest, you parents, the teacher you hated most and force them to listen to it.”
Later, he denies that vengeance is what motivates him, and says that the need for vindiction comes from the ego and not the heart.
Hmmm. I wonder.
“Kinda guy that mates for life/Gotta help him find a wife/We’re a couple when out bodies double…”
Priests and parents would probably not favour “Nancy Boy” as a positive role model, yet “Nancy Boy” is one of the best songs on “Placebo”, a thrilling blowsy glam-punk come-on that flirts with Suede’s “The Drowners” across a crowded room. It is,, to Brian’s delight, the song that most often wins over hostile audiences, despite being the most ambiguous, licentious lyric they have.
“After doing that song on the ‘White Room’ I thought ‘Jesus Christ. I’ve just gone on TV and sung, “What a beautiful ass”!’ I’ve also been on ‘The Big Breakfast’ singing ‘I’ll stick to my needle and my favourite waste of time’.”
Talk turns to the joys of subversion, and Brian admits that, although he once had a religious tape that played “Stairway To Heaven” backwards, there are no subliminal messages on “Placebo”. Then again, look at the pictures. There don’t need to be.
You know the way you look is going to affect Placebo’s initial appeal?
“I hope so. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth all the money I spend on facials.” He raises his hands in the air. “That’s a JOKE. The thing is, I often get mistaken for a girl. At first I felt flattered because I reckoned it meant I was quite pretty, then I thought, ‘if it’s that easy, maybe I should play around with it, bring it into the world of the band.’ Placebo’s music is full of ambiguity. It doesn’t offer answers, just questions.”
He smiles. I still can’t see his eyes.
“I mean, you don’t do it without hoping that in some way or another it’s quite sexy - but you never can tell.”
As disingenuousness goes, this is like Liam Gallagher saying he’d like to be famous, but isn’t sure if anyone’s, like, hat bothered about him. I’m impressed.
“Gender confusion isn’t the last taboo but it’s something people find uncomfortable. When they can’t put their finger on you, that’s when you’re at your most dangerous, and I guess I like that position - not being able to have a finger put on me. So to speak.”
Not looking like your average happy shopper, don’t you get hassled all the time?
“Not really. Maybe it’s because I walk around in my own little dream world. When I’m with girls though, we both get it. I was walking round Ladbroke Grove with a girl a week ago and two blokes came up to us and said, ‘Are you looking for cock?’ that wouldn’t have happened if I looked more like a bloke. What it does is five me insight into how horrible and infantile and offensive men can be. It gives me a kind of anti-role model, encountering male attitudes in the street, in bars, that I find completely repulsive. It shows me what I’m not and keeps me in check as a man.”
How do you feel about joining the pantheon of pansexual pin-ups?
“Hey, why not? We’re approaching the end of the millennium - those boundaries mean nothing any more. They don’t mean anything to me - they never have.”
OK, there are people who find this assumption of fluid sexuality irritating. As former MM writer, the late Kris Kirk, wrote about Morrissey six years ago in “Gay Times”: “if he’s straight he should stop feeding off us. Write about heterosexual culture, defrauding on the mortgage repayments and going to football matches.”
Maybe I should have rudely demanded to know exactly who Brian’s sleeping with, asked for ratios and percentages - yet it’s totally unnecessary. The day Brett Anderson came out with the old “bisexual who’s never had a homosexual experience quote” and pinned himself into a corner, was the day my love for Suede died a little. Brian is sexual, period. He’s also clever enough to know that in pop, nothing disappoints so much as a straight answer.
A quick detour to a studio in Shoreditch, where Placebo are recording a psychotic cover of The Smiths ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again” for French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, who are recreating “The Queen Is Dead” for a free CD. Supergrass are doing “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”. Shame. I’d love to hear them do “I Know it’s Over.”
We settle among the guitars and disco lights. Brian says he’s on a roll, and seems happy with some doughnuts, so I ask about the narcotic allure of the album, the recurrent addiction theme, whether it’s to sex (“Nancy BOY”), to drugs (“Hang On TO you IQ”) or to another person (“Bruise Pristine”).
“I do have an addictive personality - I’ve already got a lot of things out of my system by the age of 23. But perhaps I lean towards that subject matter because the state of abandoning yourself to something implies loss of identity. It’s about trying to see your way through whatever’s stopping you from operating in relation to others. For me voyeurism is a spectator sport. I really like crazy situations - sometimes more in a voyeuristic way than through participation.”
Do you think you’re extreme?
“Less and less. I think being in a band, having a future -it’s… not settled me down, but balanced things out. A lot of the energy I’d have used to seek out extreme situations and get extremely off my head - they go hand in had - has been used in the music. Fine! I have to conserve a certain number of brain cells to keep making good art.”
He flashes a gleeful look.
“But there’s still only one drug I haven’t done.”
He won’t say what, so I tell him he’s a great role-model.
“I hope not. You wanna be a role model, be Pat Boone.”
Time to discuss the devils’ music further…
Placebo recently supported David Bowie in Europe and says Brian, “He’s a fan. He likes my nail polish.” So maybe all’s not lost for DB after all, although he does seem to have turned into a Supergrass lyric.
“The first thing I said to him was, ’Hey, Dave, want a fag?’ and he said ‘No thanks, I’ve just put one out’.”
Are you ready to be that massively famous?
“We’ve always had a lot of ambition - we want to be a successful band on a global level in 10 years’ time. You get into the business craving and desiring success and all that comes with it - not that you know what it is…”
Like your life not being your own…
“I’ve noticed a few Brian clones turning up at shows. I find that quite absurd. Not that I’m belittling it, but I was never the kind of person who wanted autographs, even. It’s something I can’t attach any importance to because I’ll start thinking I’m really cool, and I’m not. I’ll get an elevated sense of self-importance, which is bad - the music will be shit for a start. That’s why I find it absurd - I have to. Maybe I’ll just reinvent myself - cut all my hair off , bleach my eyebrows.”
You’ve never ever been that fanatical?
“No. Which is why it’s so easy to talk to David Bowie. He puts his trousers on the same way as you do - even if they’re much more expensive, and very, very nice trousers. I’ve had an obsession with the music, but not to the point where you take musicians and turn them into pin-ups.”
“I’ve been obsessed with Sonic Youth and P J Harvey, and I was very heavily into Jane’s Addiction as a student, but I was always motivated by total musical brilliance. Listening to guitars bounce off each other is like Cupid’s arrow.”
But if it was just the music, then all bands could be Hootie And the Blowfish.
“Well, no, obviously we don’t want our bands to be fat, ugly and American. We want our bands to have a certain panache because it’s a performance. You have a chance to bask in the limelight so you should look a bit glam - sparkle, glisten, GLOW. Hootie, though, probe my pet theory that everybody on this planet should eat shit because 20 million flies can’t be wrong.”
ALL TOGETHER NOW
“I speak for all three of us when I say making music is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s great. I feel as though I’m doing the right thing, that my place was meant to be onstage.”
It’s your vocation. Like a nun.
Brian lights a cigarette, then pauses. It’s an immaculately timed pause.
“Oh I’d be a very wicked nun.”
Placebo. It means “I shall please”. Perfect.